{See also Wife beating epidemic}

{See also Press cuttings page 1}

{See also Press cuttings page 2}

{See also Press cuttings page 3}

{See also The right to beat a wife with a stick}

{See also Marriage}


Social norms and beliefs

During the 1800s wife beating was extremely common and only caused outrage if it was exceptionally brutal or endangered life. There was a widespread belief among ordinary people, male and female, that it was every man's 'right' to beat his wife so long as it was to 'correct her' if she did anything to annoy or upset him or refused to obey his orders. The editor of the Hull Packet (7 Oct 1853) remarked that wife-beating was 'being accepted as the habit of the nation'. The phrase 'a stick not thicker than his thumb' was often bandied about. Most magistrates disagreed; only a small number upheld that husbands had such a right [see example]. Lord Lovaine 'could not comprehend the distinction between a man who beat his own wife, and a man who beat another man's wife'. Viscount Palmerston said he did not believe that 'a man was more entitled to commit these injuries upon his own wife, than upon another man's wife. On the contrary, he thought that it was a greater offence. His own wife was more entitled to expect protection, and another man's wife had her own husband to guard her from injury.'

The press frequently mentioned the subject of husbands' belief in their right to physically hurt their wives. The editor of The Times (24 Aug 1846) criticised the lenient sentences handed out by magistrates: 'The conjugal tie appears to be considered as conferring on the man a certain degreee of impunity for brutality towards the woman.' The Morning Chronicle wrote on 31 May 1850:

'It is evident to all who take any pains to read the indications of the feelings of the populace, that they are impressed with the belief of their having a right to inflict almost any amount of corporal violence on their wife or their children. That anyone should claim to interfere with this supposed right causes them unaffacted surprise. It is not their wife or child? Are they not entitled to do was they will with their own? These phrases are not, to their apprehension, metaphorical. The shoes on their feet, the cudgel in their hand, the horse or ass that carries their burden, the wife and children, all are "theirs" and all in the same sense. Doubtless they are aware that they are not a liberty to inflict death; but when they actually do so, and find that they are tried for murder, they seem to receive the information with a kind of stolid astonishment; and it may well appear to them anomalous that a creature is given up to their power to be kicked or beaten, at the peril of life, as often as temper or intoxication may prompt... At present it is the universal belief of the labouring class, that the law permits them to beat their wives, and the wives themselves share the general error. [emphasis in original]

While churchmen got involved in issues such as prostitution, crime, alcoholism and even woman's suffrage, they were strangely silent on this subject, though one clergyman in Cumbria claimed that the 'Law of God' permitted men to beat their wives.

News reports of wife beating cases were exceedingly common. In 1853 Henry Fitzroy MP remarked that 'No one could read the public journals without being constantly struck with horror and amazement at the numerous reports of cases of cruel and brutal assaults perpetrated upon the weaker sex by men who one blushed to think were Englishmen.'Source: Hansard In the House of Lords Earl Granville spoke of 'the horrible cases of assault which constantly met the public eye in the columns of the morning journals', ... 'how numerous were the cases of great cruelty, wholly wanton and unprovoked, committed by brutal husbands upon their defenceless wives and children.' Lloyd's Weekly headed such reports 'Another Wife-Victim', 'The Old Story Once Again', 'Another Committal Under the Women's Protection Act' [by which was meant the Aggravated Assaults Act]. Male editors and reporters frequently expressed concern, outrage and disgust at wife beating and sympathised with the wives. At least one newspaperman remarked that it was impossible for women to get justice in these cases, because while the criminal was comfortably lodged and fed in prison, the poor victim and her wretched children were frequently rendered homeless and starved in the streets. In some provincial newspapers, however, the tone in which wife-beating cases were reported was clearly intended to create mirth in the reader see example. One correspondent suggested that wife-beaters should be named and shamed on a public noticeboard.

The perpetrators and victims

It was common to find that a husband had appeared in court several times before for similar assaults on his wife, or a previous wife. (In one case in 1853, neighbours testified that the assailant had married four times and had beaten all four wives.) The majority of perpetrators were labourers, ex-policemen, miners, brickmakers, grave-diggers, dockworkers, costermongers and hawkers. According to The Examiner (15 June 1872) 'The habit of beating women was once as common as swearing or drinking in the high circles; it is now chiefly confined to the lower classes'. Indeed, 99 cases out of 100 heard in the magistrates' courts involved the working classes. Among the few professional men charged were a surgeon, a vet and a barrister. The class discrepancy has various explanations. Firstly, sheer demographics: the vast majority of the population was working class. But there existed a clear difference in attitude between educated professional men (who made the laws, and who tried and judged the perpetrators, and who reported and commented on the cases), who had been raised to be gallant and protective to women, and the ignorant, rough working men who beat their wives and often thought they had a perfect right to do so. There was certainly wife-abuse amongst the professional or upper classes, but it was kept hidden, and could often be psychological or financial instead of physical. When physical violence erupted the wives had more space to escape, more locks on doors, servants to come to their rescue, money at their disposal, wealthy family members to shelter them, who, being more educated and genteel, were more appalled at the husbands' violence than were the rough, uneducated, poverty-stricken neighbours, friends and relations of working class victims. One MP and magistrate who helped pass anti-wife-beating laws, then sat in judgement of and punished wife-beaters is now known to have been one himself. The Hon. George Norton psychologically, financially and physically abused his wife Caroline, obliging their domestic servants to intervene on more than one occasion. Any kind of marital trouble was considered shameful and so everyone in polite society would have conspired to keep it a secret.

The victims were often described as sober, industrious women struggling to be as good wives and others as possible in appalling circumstances. Some wives were drunk at the time, some were habitual drunkards, no doubt having turned to drink to erase their misery. Court reports show that women of all ages were beaten: the youngest I saw was 16, the oldest 66. The vast majority were mothers of small children and it was commonly reported that the wife had a baby in her arms at the time of the assault. Men who were brutal to their wives were invariably also brutal to their children.

A small number of women killed their husbands, but were most likely to use poison rather than physical violence, though there was a case in 1858 of a woman beating her husband and another in 1860 in which she killed her husband by beating him with a stick. Such cases were rare, and in most cases the husband had been habitually brutal to the wife over a number of years. In a number of cases a wife conspired with her lover to murder her husband and both were sentenced to be executed. Perhaps if divorce had been available these crimes would never have happened.

Under-reporting

Despite the horrible frequency of wife-beating cases, those that came to court were the tip of the iceberg, because it was one of the most under-reported crimes, for a number of reasons. Firstly, women were raised in a culture which accepted a certain level of wife-beating as the norm. Wives often didn't even know they had any legal right to complain about such treatment. Women were, in addition, raised to believe that they 'deserved' a certain amount of violence if they had failed as wives (they had doubtless been beaten as children for various faults, failings and transgressions). Furthermore, taking a husband to court represented a criticism of his actions and a challenge to his authority, his right to be master in his own home. Taking him to court also transgressed social and religious expectations of wifely submission. Lastly, it was a dangerous move: bringing the law into a man's private sphere wasn't likely to improve his temper, and men frequently threatened that if their wives put them in charge, or testified against them, they would pay for it with their lives. In court the man would either be fined (or sent to prison if he did not pay), bound over to keep the peace, or sent to prison. If fined, the wife usually had to pay the fine out of her housekeeping money or her own wages or savings. Even if found from the man's wages it still amounted to there being less money to feed the family. If he was sent to prison, his dependents lost their only means of subsistence while he could not earn, and if he lost his job as a result then the whole family might end up in the workhouse. These were powerful reasons for wives not to report even serious assaults. In 1853 Thomas Phinn MP stated that 'women rarely complained ... [to magistrates] except some severe injury had been inflicted, the climax of a long series of ill-usage' ... or 'until brutality had arrived at such a pitch that life was insecure.' Lewis Dillwyn MP believed that a fine or imprisonment 'prevented the criminals being brought to justice, because when a wife knew ... that if she complained to a magistrate her husband would be sent to prison for six months, and she herself reduced to the necessity of choosing between starvation ... and the workhouse, the probability was, that she would rather suffer in secret from the violence of her tormentor than take a step leading to such fearful consequences.'Source: Hansard

It must be remembered that, for one case of domestic ruffianism which comes before the world, there are thousands in which the unhappy victims suffer without making their ill-treatment known - in order that they may preserve their tyrants from exposure and punishment. It is seldom that a wife appeals for protection to the law, until repeated acts of ill-treatment have inspired her with such terror as to overcome her natural reluctance to appear against her husband. (The Times, 21 April 1846)'.

Types of assault

It is important to bear in mind that the only cases that came to court were those of an excessively brutal nature, or where the wife's life was endangered. Wives were routinely threatened, slapped, punched and kicked with hobnailed boots or wooden clogs tipped with iron; thrown out into the street for the night, often in their nightgowns; left cold and hungry while the man spent his wages on recreation; these cases were considered far too trivial to be brought to court. Of the cases that were heard, the commonest methods of inflicting violence included dragging a wife out of bed by her hair; grasping a fistful of her hair and slamming her head repeatedly against the floor; knocking out her teeth; breaking her jaw, nose or ribs; throwing her out of a window; beating her, most commonly over the head, with whatever came to hand (poker, broomstick, hobnailed boot, hammer); throwing her to the floor and administering kicks all over the body or jumping on her belly; strangulation; punches to the face; stabbing with a domestic knife; throwing a woman onto the fire or burning her with a hot iron poker. More unusual cases included a woman whose husband locked her naked in an outside toilet for three months. Another stripped his wife and tied her by hands and feet to the bedpost and beat her senseless. In 1859 a London man gouged out his wife's eye; four years later he did the same with the other, leaving her totally blind. Sometimes a man bit off a piece of his wife's ear , nose or finger. In one case Edward Doyle broke his wife's ribs, beat her, scalded her with hot water, thrust a red-hot iron poker 'into her abdomen' and let her lie dying on a pile of sacks for two days (he got 15 years for manslaughter). In several cases the woman was heavily pregnant or had just given birth. In one case in 1852 she was actually in labour. At Westminster in 1864, a man who had on two occasions beaten his wife until she miscarried was charged with beating her during her third pregnancy. The MP for Lewes cited a case 'where a brute in the form of a man assaulted his defenceless wife, who was in an advanced state of pregnancy, and, in order that he might wreak his fury upon her with greater effect, he put his foot under her clothes, and struck her with great violence on the lower part of her person.' Most of the men who committed such assaults were labouring men who were muscular owing to the nature of their employment. There were reports of chair or table legs or broom or brush handles being splintered into pieces and iron pokers bent from the ferocity of the assault.

'Reasons'

The editor of the Hull Packet asserted that the 'predominent cause' of wife beating was the employment of married women, which was 'unnatural and pernicious' and 'contrary to the purposes for which woman was given to man'. Having a paid job led them to neglect their domestic duties, which made their husbands angry (7 Oct 1853). However, reading hundreds of court cases does not bear out this theory; most beaten wives were not employed. In any case, magistrates frequently stated that the woman had offered 'no provocation whatsoever'. The Lady's Newspaper attributed it to the 'lower orders' (i.e. working classes) being 'the worst-educated in Europe .. untrained in any moral or religious code, tossed on the storm of their passions without a single guiding or controlling principle'(19 March 1853).

Quite often magistrates asked a man directly why he had done it, and the usual answer was that he did not know, he could not account for it. If a specific reason was given, it was that she had disobeyed an order. One man in 1853, having come home drunk at 2am, beat his wife almost to death with an iron poker because she declined to remove his boots as ordered. One man's reason was his wife's refusal to attend church.

Drunkenness was a factor in most cases, which caused middle-class ladies to campaign to get working class men - and women - off the booze. Arguments about money were a frequent cause. Sometimes the wife had reproached her husband for spending food or rent money on drink, on other women, or on prostitutes, while she and the children went hungry; in some cases he had gone away and literally left his family to starve to death ; in other cases he had thrown his wife and offspring out of the house to starve on the streets. In those days, a man had a legal obligation to support his wife (there was no welfare benefit) and rather than go to the workhouse she had approached him and asked for subsistence money. In some cases the husband had ordered his wife to hand over the housekeeping money for him to spend on beer, and she had refused.

The Blue-book of 1875 gave 'intoxication consequent to some extent on increased earnings' to be the number one cause of wife beating. However, the writer failed to explain the connection between drunkenness and assaults on wives, leaving one to imagine, perhaps that all men want to physically harm their wives but restrain themselves when sober, then lose that restraint when drunk. The secondary cause of wife beating was given as 'the wretched dwellings of the poorer classes and the absence of any provision for their comfort and amusement. Again this is inadequate: no explanation is made as to why a lack of comfort led directly to men hitting women.

The court case

In court the man would either be fined (or sent to prison if he did not pay), bound over in sureties to keep the peace, or sent to prison. In some cases the assault led to the woman's death, and if guilty of murder a man would be hanged. Mostly the jury found such men guilty of manslaughter, as the death was not usually premediated or intended but was an accidental by-product of a beating.

Magistrates, being a higher social class and more genteel and educated than those they were judging, had been raised to treat women as the weaker, fairer sex. JPs routinely described the perpetrators as 'monsters', 'brutes', 'unmanly', 'cowardly' and 'ungallant'. Some went so far as to comment that such men had to be taught that they could not treat their wives like 'mere property', or 'like cattle'. They were far more appalled at the brutality of the husband than his wife was. Sometimes the wife requested to withdraw the case (probably because she had been threatened) but magistrates always refused. and said they would send it to the quarter sessions see example.

It is a measure of wives' financial dependence that victims frequently begged that husbands be bound over to keep the peace, not fined or imprisoned. Another key feature of many cases was the wife's begging for mercy to be shown to her husband. They frequently told the court that he was 'a good man when not in drink', said they forgave him for beating them and took the blame upon themselves. In several cases the wife visited the husband in prison, and brought him food and clean clothing.

Depending on the severity of the assault and the individual feelings of the magistrate, brutal husbands were fined five shilling or two weeks' imprisonment in default, £2 10s or 21 days, £5 or two months. Sometimes a man was bound of to keep the peace for six months, on £50 sureties, and in default would go to prison. Before 1853 magistrates could not impose a higher sentence. The only way to get one was to send the case to trial at the petty sessions, but it was found that during the wait for the trial the wife would withdraw and refuse to give evidence. Henry Fitzroy MP said that 'the coaxings, and intimidations, and all the different influences which were usually brought to bear upon the soft and kindly nature of the unfortunate woman who was placed in such circumstances in order to induce her to abstain from appearing against her husband - if, indeed, she was not forcibly conveyed out of the way.' Earl Granville cited the 'restraint and intimidation used against the unfortunate woman, which prevented the prosecution'. She could not be put under recognisances, which would force her to appear, because she was a married woman, and could not be forced to testify against her husband. Henry Fitzroy added that even if she did appear 'after the lapse of some weeks ... The marks of the assault would be greatly obliterated, and it was probable, therefore, that the jury would be induced to attach less importance to the case'. Because of this, magistrates preferred to impose the maximum fine of £5 or two months in default than have the husband go unpunished.

At this time, stealing one lamb drew a punishment of ten years' transportation [see for example this cutting, from 1845].

The editor of The Times was appalled at the leniency of punishment and cited the case of Charles Pilling, a habitually brutal husband, who is 1846 told people that his wife 'would not live 24 hours once he clapped eyes on her' the next day dragged her upstairs, threw her down, beat her head against the floor, knelt down upon her and squeezed her throat with his hands for two or three minutes. The woman spent ten days in hospital but survived. The jury found him guilty only of common assault, a very mild offence. The Times also criticised the lenient sentencing of a wife-beater called Reece, who: 'will be at liberty in two months to resume his attacks upon his unfortunate partner. If he should in his unchecked passion consummate the crime of femicide, a comfortable imprisonment of twelve months ... will probably, in conformity with the usual rate of punishment, be all the inconvenience to which he will be subjected' (The Times 21 April 1846).

The aftermath of court hearings

Rarely was the outcome of any court case in any way beneficial to the victim. As has been mentioned, either she had to pay the fine for her own assault, or she lost her family's entire income while her breadwinner was in prison for months. So, as far as punishments go, she could not win. Ironically, a better outcome for her was leaving her assailant unpunished but bound over to keep the peace for six months. In theory this should have worked both as a warning not to beat his wife again, and should have prevented him from beating her in retribution for bringing the case to court. The very best she could hope for was to be beaten less often, or less harshly, or, if she was really lucky, that the beatings would cease altogether, possibly to be replaced by sullen resentment and verbal abuse for the rest of her life.

After a court case wives had in the vast majority of cases no choice but to return to living with their assailant. Court reports show that commonly the violence continued and the same man appeared in court again, perhaps eventually on a murder charge. Sometimes, if the beating had arisen from the man's desertion, the wife would beg for a pitifully small weekly subsistence allowance to help support the children, in return for which she would never bother him again. Unable ever to get a divorce , she could never remarry. Few managed to earn enough to support their families, and anything they did earn still legally belonged to their husbands. This meant that, if by some miracle a woman managed to earn enough to rebuild up a home for her children, and put away something for a rainy day, her husband could appear at any moment, seize every item, claim all her savings and wages, all with the blessing of the law. In one such case, after a woman had set herself up with a lodging-house her husband appeared, tore down all the curtains and smashed all her furniture, ornaments, pictures and china. She could not prosecute because, in law, everything belonged to him. Not until 1857 did a separated wife have the right to her own property and wages.

After 1878 a woman who proved her husband had committed an aggravated assault on her could on the same day apply for a separation order and maintenance payments. This was not the end of the matter, however. Firstly, courts heard many cases of brutal assault taking place when the husband failed to pay maintenance and the wife approached him for it. Secondly, the maintenance generally only covered bare subsistence, leaving the wife and children on the poverty line, struggling on a quarter of man's weekly wage while the husband lived comfortably as a single man on the other three-quarters. If a woman had brought a fortune into the marriage, after being convicted of beating her the husband kept the money after they separated.

In one case in the 1830s, a lady received a large legacy from her father, the sum of £500. When she was about to marry Gabriel Hards, her friends begged her to have the money put into a trust (meaning her husband could not get hold of it) but that seemed so unromantic and untrusting that she handed him the whole amount. After about five years he beat her and threw her out of the house, giving her 7s 6d (37p) a week to keep herself and two children. A yeoman of the guard in the royal household at St James's Palace, with a wholesale business as well, his income was 'above £500 a year'. Then he dropped her allowance to 4s 6d (22p) then to nothing. After fifteen weeks with no income she went to see him to ask for money, and he struck her. By the time the case came to the magistrates she and the children were literally starving in the streets. And yet she was an heiress who had inherited the equivalent to half a million pounds in today's money. It is salutory to note that six years later Mr Hards prosecuted one of his employees for stealing some plums from him and the lad was transported for seven years.

Because of the tremendous difficulty in getting adequate and reliable maintenance, or obtaining an adequately-paid job, many such women ended up either in the workhouse or living 'in sin' with another man, who often resented having to raise another man's children. There were a number of court cases in which such children were turned out of the house, and in some cases beaten or murdered by the man, and sometimes even by the desperate mother herself. Living 'in sin' lost her what last shreds of 'respectability' she might have had, and when the relationship ended some women saw nothing left but to turn to prostitution. Knowing that this had been the fate of other women who got separation orders could well have been an additional reason for a wife not to report being beaten by her husband. One such woman, Mrs Stoate, was ejected from her home in 1854 by her violent husband. Left destitute, rather than enter the workhouse she turned to prostitution and sunk into alcoholism, which he then used to get a legal separation from her.

In a way, everything that was wrong with the position of women under patriarchy the c19th is encapsulated in the case of battered wives. It draws together so many threads: society, which made it indecent to live with a man outside of wedlock; the church, which told her she was of less worth than a man and wrote her obedience into her marriage vows; the suppression of birth control information, which led to having too many children and insufficient money, which caused arguments; the lack of well-paid work for women, which made it hard for a spinster or separated woman to support herself without a man; the law of coverture, which gave husbands complete ownership of wives' property and earnings. Certainly this is how a rally of 200 working women who met at Leicester Town Hall in 1856 saw it. Addressing the meeting, Mrs Wigfield linked wifebeating with 'the injustice of the existing laws by which a woman is deprived of control of her own earning and offspring'. (Weekly Despatch 20 April).

The Aggravated Assaults Act 1853

To try to stem the tide of the epidemic of wife-beating, in 1853 the (all-male) House of Commons passed the Aggravated Assaults Act. Henry Fitzroy, MP for Lewes, brought the Bill to increase the fine for aggravated assaults upon women and children (including boys up to 14), which he said were 'rapidly growing' and constituted 'a blot upon our national character'. By increasing the fine, he pointed out that he was 'only asking them to extend the same protection to defenceless women as they already extended to poodle dogs and donkeys (under the Cruelty to Animals Act). Earl Granville spoke of 'an old jocular proverb which, however absurd and ridiculous it might be, had perhaps not been without its evil effects in its way: - "A woman, a dog, and a walnut tree," "The more they are beaten, the better they'll be." The law, as it at present stood, gave greater protection both to the tree and to the dog, than it did to the unfortunate woman. A person was liable to corporal punishment for cutting a shrub, and might be imprisoned for three months, with or without hard labour, for ill-treating a dog; but in the case of a woman he might be fined only £5.

Imprisonment was increased to a mazimum of six months. Fines were increased to a maximum of £20 or, in default, imprisonment increased to a maximum of six months hard labour. Magistrates were also empowered, if they thought fit, at the expiration of a sentence, to bind the man to keep the peace for any time not exceeding six calendar months. Magistrates wasted no time in implementing the harsher penalties, some even remarked how pleased they were that the law enabled them to do so. See example. They even referred to the Act as the 'Women's Protection Act'.

However, as early as September 1853 members of the press were commenting that the new law was not working as a deterrent. John Bull (10 Sept) said: 'It must have struck the most careless observer that an immense increase has taken place of later in the number of aggravated assaults upon defenceless women'. Two weeks later the same paper wrote of the 'multiplying evidences' of wife-beating, as that week there were four truly shocking cases heard in the London courts. The Lady's Newspaper commented that 'the Act for the protection of women and children has been followed by an increase of the offences it was mean to prohibit' (15 Oct). Lewis Dillwyn MP spoke of 'the frequency of barbarous and savage assaults on women and children' that had prompted the 1853 Act. The Act had been in operation for nearly three years and 'had not worked satisfactorily' ... the total number of convictions and sentences was 877' (more than 2.4 a day). 'It would be impossible, indeed, to exaggerate the evil ... he had been shocked to read the particulars of some of the cases which occurred in the second year of the Act. Some cases were little short of murder, in which, indeed, assaults upon women and children frequently ended. The fact that repetitions of the offence were not uncommon showed that the present Act bad not realised the expectations of its authors.

On 12 March 1856 Lewis Dillwyn MP proposed a Bill to amend the Act of 1853. The time had assuredly arrived for the application of a sharper remedy. He proposed that every person convicted of an assault upon a woman or a child should be sentenced to not less than fourteen days', or more than two mouths'imprisonment, and during his confinement should be once privately whipped. He believed that the class of persons who committed such offences were only to be deterred from their commission by fear. A man who raised his hand against a defenceless woman or child, who knocked his wife down and stamped upon her stomach, when perhaps she was in an advanced state of pregnancy, was not capable of being degraded to a lower level - he was a brute in every sense of the word, and nothing would have an effect upon him, he firmly believed, but the fear of bodily pain. 'We had tried imprisonment for short periods and imprisonment for long periods; both had failed, - the crime still existed to a frightful extent, and there seemed to him to be no other alternative left than to resort to corporal punishment.' Punch magazine 'heartily hoped' the Bill would be passed to allow flogging. However, the House of Commons voted 97 to 135 against.

In 1860 Viscount Enfield told the House of Commons that the Aggravated Assaults Act had failed. A move by Lord Raynham to introduce flogging was lost by 221 to 86 votes.

The flogging (i.e. whipping) debate

During the debate of the Aggravated Assaults Bill, Henry Fitzroy, MP for Lewes, said he felt that only corporal punishment 'could mark the sense of indignation which was entertained by every Englishman who read of such an atrocity' but he 'did not feel justified' in proposing it. Thomas Phinn MP 'very much regretted' that they had not 'introduced flogging for wife beaters, who 'were already reduced below the level of the brute'. He later moved such a clause but it was voted out by 108 votes to 50. A magistrate later alluded to Mr Phinn , and many others announced themselves in favour of flogging wife beaters.

Many magistrates regretted that they could not have the man whipped . One in London, Mr Hammill, stated that he could see no end of the present system unless the Legislature conferred upon magistrates the power of inflicting corporal punishment.

Lord Lovaine was in favour of flogging, since 'there were persons who could not be reached by any other punishment, and it was for that class, and that class only, which was so utterly degraded, that he recommended it'. Just months after the the Aggravated Assaults Act was in operation the editor of John Bull (10/9/53) called for flogging to be introduced: 'The brutal bully that maltreats a defenceless woman is, as a rule, a base coward, and the dread of retaliation provided for him by the law is the best guard that can be placed on his unruly fists'.

Many objections were subsequently raised against inflicting a flogging on a wife beater. Henry Fitzroy said he believed it 'would be quite inconsistent with the feeling of the age, and the spirit of modern legislation' and if magistrates were forced to sentence offenders to be publicly or privately flogged, those opposed to flogging would not convict at all. Flogging would direct public sympathy towards the assailant. Women would not go to court if it meant their husbands or boyfriends suffered 'so degrading and brutal a punishment'. Furthermore, a man would never forget that his wife had procured his being flogged and he would be filled with vindictive and revengeful feelings. Some said that it would 'prevent a reconciliation between husband and wife'. It was said that flogging would have the effect of brutalising and degrading men. Lord Lovaine was concerned that 'inflicting upon the man marks which would last for life ... would sow the seeds of domestic resentment'. Mr Barrow MP said 'if a man were guilty of the atrocious habit of ill-treating his wife, or any woman under his protection, he would punish him in the most severe manner - he would give him the hardest and dirtiest work that could be devised, but he would not flog him. If that were the punishment, in half the cases, depend upon it, the wives would not come forward to prosecute.

Mr Muntz said he very much doubted whether corporal punishment would have the effect of diminishing the offence of woman-beating. How would any hon. Gentleman meet his wife, he should like to know, after she had been the means of getting him a good flogging? For himself, he confessed he should not be disposed to be very affectionate under such circumstances. Mr Stuart Wortley said that 'in the majority of cases the wife herself was the first to come forward, and throw herself upon her knees before the magistrate, praying that her husband's sentence might not be passed. With that impression he certainly thought a law which would subject the husband to corporal punishment would rather increase than diminish the evil. The additional exposure which would be given to the offence, and the degradation of the punishment, of which the man must bear the marks about his body for the rest of his days, would often deter the unfortunate wives from applying to the magistrate at all, and thus defeat the very benefit that was intended.' In 1860 a petition was presented to the House of Commons by women against flogging.

In 1872 The Examiner (15 June) remarked: 'Everyone admits that the punishment of wife-beaters is ridiculously inadequate ... We cannot go on with the present system of trivial punishment'. The writer recommended flogging, because it 'impresses the dullest intellect'.

In 1883 Octavius Coope MP asked the Secretary for the Home Department if magistrates could order wife-beaters to be flogged, because sending her breadwinner to jail harmed the victim more than the criminal. Sir William Harcourt replied that this had been discussed and rejected some years ago.

In 1874 a Manchester magistrate hearing in one sitting four cases of wife-beating, remarked that the law ought to allow the men to be 'whipped with the cat-o'-nine-tails'.

In 1874 an editorial in The Times attested that wife beating was still as big a problem as ever.

In 1874 Colonel Egerton Leigh, a magistrate and MP expressed concerns that the sons of wife beaters would grow up to see it as normal and beat their own wives. His plea that all he wanted was 'fair play for the fairer sex' received shouts of 'hear, hear!' from fellow MPs. Benjamin Disraeli agreed and professed himself 'disgusted by the daily accounts of assaults' on wives. He ordered an inquiry, during which no less than fifteen out of seventeen judges, and 64 out of 68 recorders, chairmen of quarter-session and eleven chief constables advocated flogging for particularly brutal assaults on wives (Blue-book, 1875). From time to time juries and magistrates sent presentments to the Home Secretary asking that flogging be introduced for wife beaters, rapists and child molesters. However, that punishment was never brought in.

In 1875 flogging wife beaters was raised at the Social Science congress: 'This was objected to as tending to embitter the relations of husband and wife'. [It seems astonishing that they did not think that taking an unprovoked, undeserved, brutal beating will have had that effect! -Ed.]

In 1880 Mr O'Shaughnessy MP and Mr T.D. Sullivan MP asked a question in the House of Commons, whether the Home Secretary would please bring in flogging to repress 'the atrocities' committed on women and children.

In 1882 the Birmingham Daily Post (1 June)observed that 'a little of that humanitarian zeal' which is shown in dealing with cases of cruelty to animals 'might be usefully directed at the better protection of women and children against their husbands and fathers.'

In 1891, after Durham Quarter Sessions heard twelve successive cases of assaults on women and children, its MP again called for 'the whip' to be used for such cases.

In 1891 Mr Montagu Williams JP said that 'never a day passed' at Clerkenwell Court without his hearing cases of wife beating. He declared that such brutalisation would never stop until the cat-o'-nine-tails was applied to make the husband feel something of the pain he had inflicted on his wife. 'Imprisonment creates little if any terror in their imagination', he stated, 'The lash, however, is viewed by these wretches with abject terror'.

By 1899 the problem was still so prevalent that a group of nine eminent Scottish women, headed by Priscilla Bright McLaren sent a memorial to the Home Secretary calling for flogging for those who commit assaults upon women, as it was clear that no present punishment was working as a deterrent.

In 1899 Florence Fenwick Miller published a long, three-part feature article about how to put an end to it (Women's Signal 2, 9, 16 March). She criticised magistrates who gave lenient punishments to men who claimed that their wives provoked them by being idle, getting drunk, not cooking his dinner to his liking or going out when he had told her stop in. The husband, she asserted, had appointed himself jury, judge and executioner: as jury he found her guilty, as judge he sentenced her to corporal punishment and as executioner carried out that punishment. Punishments were ridiculously lenient: two, three or six months' imprisonment for the most appalling violence, compared with years of imprisonment given to burglars and thieves. She criticised those who opposed flogging, asserting that a limited, controlled, measured, one-off flogging was far less objectionable than the unrestrained, uncontrolled, unpredictable, prolonged and above all habitual beatings that husbands gave to wives.

Florence Fenwick Miller also pointed out that indecent assaults and rapes had more than doubled in twenty years, from 573 cases in 1876 to 1,379 in 1895. She felt lenient punishments were partly to blame, and quoted a two month's sentence imposed on a collier for raping a four-year-old girl and giving her VD.

Divorce

Marriage was considered to be the very basis of society, something to be held together no matter what. Until 1923 the sole ground for divorce was adultery. This meant that even if her husband beat her daily for fifty years, starved her, locked her in the house, gouged out both her eyes with a red hot poker or jumped on her belly until she miscarried, broke her bones time and again, no working class wife could get a divorce. But a single, brief, sexual liaison with another man instantly gave her husband legal grounds to divorce her, keep any money she brought into the marriage, and prevent her from ever seeing her children again. Rich women who could prove their husbands' adultery and cruelty could obtain 'a divorce a mensa et thoro' (from bed and board) for £1,500. This was a legal separation with no right of remarriage. Read more about divorce...

Lewis Dillwyn MP, in reply to a suggestion that there should be cheaper divorce, said 'that was a very large question, affecting the social and domestic relations of the whole people, and one which required very grave consideration.' He approved of it because separating persons who were ill matched might reduce wife beating. But making violence grounds for divorce was 'holding out a direct inducement to commit the assaults', and it would not help 'concubines' - women living with men outside of marriage, of whom there were many thousands among the working classes. Mr Muntz MP believed the cause of wife beating among the working classes 'was the impossibility there was, under any circumstances, of man and wife ever being separated from each other.'

From 1878 a wife could obtain a separation order on the grounds of her husband's persistent cruelty, if she was convicted of an aggravated assault upon her. This gave her an incentive to report his violence to the police, because it could be her means of escape. In 1902 the husband's habitual drunkenness was added to the grounds for legal separation. During the years 1895-99 there was an annual average of 600 applications for these matrimonial orders. The annual average for 1900-04 was 1,400.

Wife beating after the 1853 Act

Considerably more research would be needed, including comparing crime statistics, to make a judgement on whether after the 1853 Act wife beating decreased; and indeed if the reduction could be attributed to the Act or to other causes.

The newspapers continued to be full of court cases about brutality towards wives. In 1855 the Lady's Newspaper commented 'Cases of the barbarous treatment of wives by their husbands are of almost daily occurence at the police-court' before describing a recent cases in which a man beat, kick and then pushed his wife backwards out of a first-floor window after saying he intended to kill her (he received 12 months' imprisonment).

In 1870, a reporter for John Bull was appalled that no less than ten cases of men assaulting women were heard on a single day in London: 27th September.

In one case in 1872, the police - inexplicably - said they could do nothing after a husband scalded and blinded his wife .

In 1874 it was reported that assaults on women by men had steadily increased, from 280 in 1870 to 351 in 1874. The Englishwoman's Review asserted that the 'evil of such inadequate punishment ... causes brutal uneducated men to feel that an assault on a woman, especially if she be his wife, is really a matter of no consequence' (1 July).

In 1878 the Englishwoman's Review remarked upon the 'horrible atrocities with which our newspapers have lately teemed - of women who have been beaten and kicked to death, burned with paraffin, blinded with vinegar' by their husbands and men with whom they cohabit.

In 1884 Mr Justice Pearson, a judge in Staffordshire, said that his court had 'turned into a chamber of horrors' after he had heard in a single day a long and horrible series of attacks on women by men. He was particularly upset at having to 'sit and hear the details of the violation of children of five years, eight years and eleven years of age, of young women hardly grown to womanhood, who had been treated as if they had been mere objects created for the lust of man'. He doled out sentences of twenty years, fifteen years, eighteen months and six months. A month later Mr Saunders, the magistrate at Thames Police Court, fined Joseph Dennis ten shillings after he struck a woman in the street, punched her in the eye, knocked her down, grasped her hair and hammered her head onto the pavement, and kicked her in the side, breaking two ribs. Mr Macfarlane MP asked the Home Secretary about the light punishment, and received the answer that it was up to each individual magistrate to impose whatever punishment he saw fit. Macfarlane sarcastically commented that women would be better protected if they were included in the cruelty to animals laws (a man had recently been given three months' imprisonment for breaking a bird's leg).

In 1890 it was reported that assaults on women had doubled from 305 in 1868 to 689 in 1888.

In 1890 the Women's Penny Paper published an article on the proliferation of wife beating and wife murder by Agnes Sunley.

In 1892 the Woman's Herald complained yet again that sentences were far too lenient and were no deterrent whatsoever. Among the cases cited was that of Henry Walker, found guilty of murdering a woman by throwing her over a bridge into a river. He received just twelve months' imprisonment. A year later the paper quoted a Miss Martin of Bristol as asserting at the Women's Liberal Federation annual conference that 'Women would never be fully protected until laws were made and administered by women'. She called for women judges and juries, and was applauded.

In 2002 a writer in The Independent wrote: 'For all the rhetoric, all the initiatives, eye-catching and otherwise, all the legislation and all the 10-year plans to "crack down" on violent crime, politicians of both main parties have for too long said and done virtually nothing about the biggest single type of this crime in this country - domestic violence. A third of all murders in England and Wales are classified as "domestic", and the Crown Prosecution Service deals with 13,000 domestic violence cases a year, which certainly represents a gross underestimate of the true extent of this brutality, as so many women feel reluctant to report incidents of this type of crime. In 2003 Marie Woolf, in the same paper said: 'More than a quarter of murder victims are women killed by a partner or former partner. Ministers believe too many men who kill women in the home are convicted of the lesser offence of manslaughter instead of murder'.

In 2008 Joan Smith wrote: 'The figures are horrifying: almost 60 murders so far this year, and on average a victim calls the police every single minute ... it's an epidemic of crime ... but you'll rarely read about it or see the victims' photographs. I'm talking about domestic violence, which affects one woman in four, according to the Home Office, which also says that two women a week are killed by their current or former male partner. Why don't we see their pictures? Why isn't there a public outcry about our fractured society which is so signally failing to protect vulnerable women and children? If we care about young men being stabbed on the streets of Manchester or London, as of course we should, why aren't we also up in arms about a crime which accounts for 15 per cent - around one in seven - of all violent incidents and leaves hundreds of thousands of women in fear of their lives?' (The Independent, 18 July)

Sources: British regional and national newspapers; Hansard (transcripts of British parliamentary debates).


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